“I Think We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Legal Team”… Enzo Castellari’s THE LAST SHARK Reviewed

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L’Ultomo Squalo (“The Last Shark”) aka The Last Jaws / Jaws Returns/ Great White (1981). Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Produced by Maurizio Amati and Ugo Tucci. Written by Ramón Bravo, Vincenzo Mannino, Marc Princi and Ugo Tucci. Cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli. Edited by Gianfranco Amicucci. Special FX by Antonio Corridori. Art direction by Franco Vanorio. Music by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis. Starring: James Franciscus, Vic Morrow, Micaela Pignatelli, Joshua Sinclair, “Timothy Brent”  (Giancarlo Prete), Stefania Girolami.

Here at the HOF we continue to seek out new obscurities and re-familiarise ourselves with long neglected treasures during our increasingly elastic free month’s trial with Amazon Prime. This time out it’s an Italian copycat effort that scored big in American theatres (round about the time that its director was making a big impression in the early days of home video and winning the heart of Quentin Tarantino with the likes of Bronx Warriors)… scoring significant legal problems in the process.

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William Wells (Joshua Wells), the mayor of South Bay (why does the poster above locate the action in “Port Harbor”? Fucked if I know…) is running for State Governor so he doesn’t want anything to disrupt the centenary wind-surfing regatta he’s throwing (sound reasoning… anyone who lays on a centenary wind-surfing regatta gets my vote!) It follows that he doesn’t want smart alec marine biologist Peter Benton (James Franciscus) spreading scare stories about the potential for shark attacks. Credit where it’s due, the mayor does get miles of underwater metal cages installed to ring fence the bay from sharky intrusions (yep, this guy’s definitely getting my vote). Vic Morrow (in the Quint role) rants (in a preposterous Scottish accent) about how sharks, once they’ve acquired the taste for human flesh, won’t let any metal fence come between them and their next helping of it. Helping them on their relentless way, ambitious freelance news reporter Bob Martin (Giancarlo Prete) sabotages stretches of the fence to increase his chances of getting saleable footage of wind-surfing kids being attacked by sharks (way to get your Pulitzer prize shoved up your arse there, Bob!)

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“There’s something fishy here… I don’t like it” announces one of the competitors, shortly before he, his buddies and their bikini-clad bimbo girlfriends start getting bits munched off them by that Great White. Sensing his gubernatorial aspirations slipping from his grasp, the Mayor has himself helicoptered out over the bay in an attempt to shoot the giant shark, which rises from the brine to drag the chopper and its inhabitants into Davey Jones’s locker… another promising political career comes to an end! What pisses Peter off more than any of this, though, is when the shark bites off one of his daughter Jenny (Castellari’s real life daughter Stefania)’s legs, setting up the climactic confrontation between him, Quinty ol’ Ron Hamer (Morrow) and the titular beasty…

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Hm… did any of that remind you of another film? One directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, perhaps? Just a little bit? Universal Pictures certainly thought so. As Castellari tells it… “In the sunny city of Los Angeles, in only its first weekend of release, we collected $2,200,000… a crazy amount for any Italian, indeed any European, film. I was fortunate enough to be in LA when it was opening. After 15 days The Last Shark, which was called The Great in the United States, had taken at least 20 million. It seemed impossible to be in competition with Spielberg and win, it was like one of our fantasy productions but it was true! The Americans were running scared of us, so Universal moved to interrupt our success, and a month later they did it, through legal means, inventing a lot of reasons and a lot of evidence which they presented to the judge. You can imagine these high-powered lawyers for Universal, they’re able to fight very well against a small Italian production…”

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As if this wasn’t enough of a commercial injury, Castellari feels that Universal subsequently added a cheeky dollop of insult: “In Jaws 3, which came out two years later, there are several scenes that are exactly the same as in my film, which they killed in this big market, then they had the cheek to copy me… especially the big scene on the pier, it’s exactly the same as in my picture, right down to identical shots!”

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Well, there’s probably an element of the pasta pot calling the US corporate kettle black here, though what’s undeniable is that with admirable economy and characteristic conviction (in the action sequences) / competence (during the scenes of exposition) Castellari has managed a shark picture that bears comparison with the legitimate successors to Spielberg’s original. Sure, there are plot holes (does Benton chin Bob Martin because he knew that the latter had sabotaged that anti-shark fencing? How did he know? And was a sock on the jaw sufficient payout for his daughter’s missing leg?) but the film’s biggest drawback is the way Castellari allows the camera to dwell too long on his giant plastic shark head (admittedly Spielberg made the same mistake) and some less than convincing model work, certain shots of which should have been dispensed with entirely. There’s one bit with a toy helicopter bobbing around in somebody’s sink, alongside what’s supposed to be a shark… but could well be something else…

… but what else could it possibly be?

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Well, consider Castellari’s own account of shooting The Shark Hunter with Franco Nero, two years earlier: “We did that in a Caribbean island, using 32 real sharks with a Mexican crew. For them it was so easy, but on one occasion I was underwater with the DP when a shark escaped from the hands of his trainer… I saw this shark coming straight at me, it was just like a train, and that was it… whoa! What do you say? ‘You shit your pants!’ I know now from experience, that’s not just a saying. You actually do it!”

Another mystery cleared up. All part of the service here at House Of Freudstein, dear readers.

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